Virtue Reality, Part 2

12 Jun Virtue Reality, Part 2

Virtue Reality, Part 2
Colossians 1:15-28
June 13, 2021
M. Michelle Fincher
Calvary Presbyterian Church

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This morning is Part 2 of our look at the Christian virtues that the Apostle Paul sets out in Colossians 1.  We are examining these virtues through the lens of what they mean for running the race we call “the life of faith.”  Last week we looked at the virtues of generosity, tolerance, and forgiveness.  Today we add restraint, fidelity, and courage.  And as we did last week, there is a call and response at the end of each of these virtues.  When I say, “Christ in you,” you’ll respond with “The Hope of Glory.

Anyone who has spent much time watching cable TV knows that there are nearly endless options for programming that cater to humanity’s baser instincts.  The Jerry Springer show, once called “the worst show in the history of television” was a prime example.  For 27 years and nearly 5000 episodes, Jerry Springer made millions not only from his raw and raunchy program; he also raked in additional fame and fortune through the sale of a video depicting shows that were too disgusting to air on television.  Violence, nudity, bizarre relationships, and twisted psyches were packed into the best-selling home video.

Obviously it is vice and violence that sell.  In such an environment, virtue seems to have no chance.  Who buys videos on the daily practice of virtuous restraint, fidelity, or courage?  But those are the virtues our world needs.

Few virtues are as actively maligned or passively ignored as the virtue of restraint.  Why is self-control prized less than self-expression?

Paul points out to the Colossians that his exuberant proclamation of the gospel is tempered with a restrained refrain: “warning everyone and teaching everyone in all wisdom, so that we may present everyone mature in Christ” (v.28). Despite, or perhaps because of, the astonishing nature of Paul’s news of salvation, the apostle chooses his words carefully and delivers them precisely.  He offers “warnings” to guard and guide the behavior of new believers and provides “teachings” that they may be competent and confident in their faith.

There is a crucial distinction to be made between practicing Christian restraint and chafing under the bond of externally imposed constraints.  Paul was not constrained to present the Good News according to one set pattern or one uniform package.  In fact, it was the virtue of restraint that made Paul capable of preaching the gospel of Christ with power and persuasion before groups as diverse as the Gentiles of Colossae and the Jews of Rome.  When it was necessary, the virtue of restraint enabled Paul to pause—and choose not to judge; to pause—and choose not to speak; to pause—and choose not to act.

Like most virtues, we don’t come by restraint naturally.  It takes discipline and repetitive practice to develop the spiritual muscle of restraint.  In every sport, think about how discipline works.  Out of the limelight, day in and day out, in season and out of season, when they feel great and when they feel crummy, athletes practice their motions, focusing on minute differences in stride or swing or stroke.  Those hours of highly disciplined repetitive practice are the means by which they perfect their craft, so that when the race or the game or the match starts, they don’t have to think about every single step—the muscle memory is there so that the body is free to excel at what it’s been trained to do. 

Restraint is a virtue that will protect us from all kinds of pain that rash, unwise, thoughtless words and actions can cause.  It will give us energy, endurance and freedom to race with joy, so let us heed Paul’s warning to practice restraint.

Preacher: Christ in You
People: The Hope of Glory

While Paul praised the Colossians for their “faith in Christ Jesus” at the very beginning of his letter (v.4), the person in whom this faith is placed remains rather undefined until verse 15.  In a stirring Christological hymn, which Paul delivers in verses 15-20, the object of Christian faith is revealed in all his glory.  Christ is “the firstborn of all creation” (v.15), “in him all things … were created” (v.16), “He is the head of the body” (v.18), “in him all the fullness of God was pleased to dwell” (v.19), and “through him God was pleased to reconcile to himself all things … by making peace through the blood of his cross” (v.20).

Christ’s divine identity, his supreme sacrifice and the total reconciliation he offers, are all within our reach, Paul declares, for those who “continue securely established and steadfast in the faith” (v.23).

“Keeping faith” is the Christian virtue of fidelity.  As with a lot of the virtuous attitudes and behaviors taught in Scripture, people outside and sadly, some inside the church, have tried to simplify fidelity to the point of being a shallow, one-dimensional, “thou-shalt-not” directive about sexual behavior.  But fidelity is about much more than sex. Whether keeping promises, commitments, ideals, or marriage vows, fidelity is about being true to the person God created you to be so that you can offer your best, most genuine self back to God and to others.  

Integrity is what Paul is talking about, and integrity is nothing more or less than trueness: being true to God by being true to your body, true to your mind, true to your soul.  Trueness is the integration of the self into one coherent package.  To practice the virtue of genuine fidelity is to have no hidden agendas, no dark secrets, no surprises in our psychological or spiritual closets which could sneak out and scare up a false face to others.

The insidious threat to the virtue of fidelity is the postmodern taunt that we are “tied down,” “constricted,” or “missing out” by committing ourselves to one person, one God, one Way, one Truth.  But faithfulness to Christ and virtuous fidelity to family, friends, neighbors, and colleagues enables each of us to be true to ourselves, to be a fully integrated person.  It is through fidelity that we become capable of experiencing our greatest freedom.  We are free from subterfuge, free from coercion, collusion, and conceit.  Fidelity brings us the freedom to be true to our entire self, as God created us to be.

In a world where fickleness is the accepted norm, how do we “do” faithful-ness?  Paul warns the Colossians to remain “securely established and steadfast … without shifting from the hope promised” (v.23).  In other words, fidelity is possible only when love and hope and faith work together, keeping us true to God, ourselves and others as we run the race of faith.

Preacher: Christ in You
People: The Hope of Glory

It seems strange to see how routinely Paul mentions suffering (v.24) in his letters, and not just mentioning, but rejoicing in it.  Isn’t it a bit nuts to rejoice in suffering?  What kind of crazy recruiter promises hardship, vilification, rejection, even death among the rewards new members may look forward to?  What kind of virtue can be made out of the hard-core experiences of human pain and suffering?

Paul, along with later generations of Christian martyrs, is exactly that kind of crazy recruiter—which also makes him an advocate for the virtue of Christian courage.

When you consider whether or not you are “courageous,” what kinds of situations come to mind?  Perhaps you imagine facing down an armed intruder, or risking your own safety to rescue someone who is hurt or stranded, or standing up to overwhelmingly evil forces of hate and injustice.

But is the virtue of courage really about personal danger?  If you manage to live your whole life without ever pulling someone from a burning building or standing up to a gang of thugs or vanquishing an “evil empire,” have you failed to nurture courage as a virtue in your life?

In truth the need for virtuous courage probably raises its head in our lives on a daily basis.  Christ-in-you courage is merely another active, faithful expression of Christian love.  For example:

  • It takes courage to walk into a workplace that is actively hostile toward compassion and intentionally rewards greed.
  • It takes courage to face a classroom where apathy and anxiety rule instead of energy and excitement.
  • It takes courage to forego the rewards of workaholism in order to devote time and energy to the often thankless task of raising a family.
  • It takes courage to leave the familiar and comfortable and jump with hope and imagination into the unknown because you sense God’s Spirit leading you.
  • It takes courage to attend a church and tend to a congregation that is struggling to regain its spiritual breath and health after a global pandemic.
  • It takes courage to be a Christian in a culture where faith is looked at with anything from hostility to disdain to indifference.

The courage of those who face daunting daily challenges can make all of us more aware of how this virtue must be nurtured in our own lives.  How would you cope if you were to become disabled?  Or chronically ill?  Or dependent on someone else for your basic needs?  Would you courageously rise to the occasion?

A physical or mental crisis can take place anytime, in the span of a moment.  James Hall was a Jungian analyst and well-known writer.  In the early 90’s, at the age of 57, he had a stroke that paralyzed him so severely he had to be taught how to swallow.  After the stroke, he rarely left his home in Dallas, communicating via a computer keyboard.  Yet, in an interview with journalist Dee Wedemeyer, he said, “’Life is, if anything, more interesting than before I was disabled.  I don’t worry now about such things as reputation and earning a living. With essentially nothing to lose, I am more open about what I think.”

After the stroke, Hall converted to Catholicism.  Asked if he believes that God could heal him, he replied, “God,” as I conceive him/her, could heal me but would not.  In a deep sense, there is nothing to ‘heal’ me from.  Obviously [I] could use physical healing to restore my previous level of function, but I am psychologically healthier than I have ever been.”  When it comes to the Christian virtue of courage, perhaps nothing asks us to be courageous more than to receive the sufferings that life dishes out and to allow them to be redemptive in our lives, rather than making us bitter.  And at some point, we all have the opportunity to nurture this virtue in our lives.

To run a strong race, let us practice courage.  Practice restraint.  And practice fidelity.
Preacher: Christ in You.
People: The Hope of Glory

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